For once I finally remembered to look up the selections for this year’s Canada Reads before the debates started. There’s just over five weeks left until the process of elimination begins and another book is picked as one that all Canadians should read. Books from previous years have landed everywhere from disappointing to a new favourite. This time around I intend to read them all myself before they get ranked.
First up: Icefields, by Thomas Wharton. Straight off the mark this book gets points for being about a critical time and place in Canada’s youth—the exploration and development of the west, specifically the Rocky mountains and their glaciers. My dad joked that if the book was about glaciers, somebody is going to fall into a crevice. True enough, but it happens in the first chapter, so we can’t exactly accuse Wharton of using a cliche element for his climax, now, can we.
Icefields succeeds very well in painting a picture of this time and place in the Rockies. Unfortunately, the picture is a bit too abstract. On the stylistic side, the use of em-dashes to denote punctuation at the beginning of paragraphs instead of quotation marks was unnecessarily confusing. It was never clear whether the second sentence, the one after the “he said” or “she said”, was more dialogue or back to narrative. The narration itself was confusing, as the narrator seemed to change throughout the book. Nobody I’ve talked to who has read this book has been able to keep the characters straight. Someone I thought was two people my mom thought was one. “I” in one chapter might be “he” in the next. The picture was there, at least, and it was a nice one, but we couldn’t make out the details.
I’m also undecided on how the plot is motivated. The initiating event, of falling into the glacier crevice, does strike up some mystery and solicits curiosity from the reader, but only to end up disappointed. After that first chapter the story doesn’t end up being about that vision at all, but moves to describing an impressionist painting of ice and stone. What more are we to expect, I guess, since something frozen in ice isn’t going to provide much action and conflict.
The book is very Canadian, and certainly does a good job of portraying that aspect, but is lacking in any specifics to make the setting resonate with the reader. In the end I don’t think it measures up to some previous entires in the Canada Reads series.